May 15, 2020

Creating a Student-Centric Virtual Learning Environment

Prannoy Nambiar
A student works on homework in front of a laptop

If anything has become apparent in the world of education technology in the last couple months, it is the difficulty in implementing a captivating virtual learning environment for our world’s students. From pre-K all the way through graduate schools, the struggle to stay engaged in a learning environment is real. Many districts have already called it quits for the rest of the year because of the management difficulties brought on by remote learning.

Even with the requisite resources like consistent internet connection and the latest devices and software, a virtual learning environment faces hurdles related to student behavior and communication, collaboration, camaraderie, and simple curricular interaction. In order to create a new normal for learning, one must look beyond the current challenges and into future possibilities. It is imperative to take the learnings from the current context and apply them to build better solutions for the future of education.

The Current Context

Much of the discussion around the current situation with schools focuses on the virtual aspect of the learning environment, but that does not paint the full picture of what is occurring amid quarantine and other public health restrictions. The other aspect here is, simply put, a crisis. Not only are teachers conducting classrooms in a remote setting, but also in the backdrop of a major societal crisis. The solution is not simply a technological one, but also psychological.

1. The remote classroom. You don’t have to look far to see all of the e-learning technology companies popping up at this time. They are providing a vital service in a time of need and will likely continue to do so for the long term in the education sector. The trend for distance learning was rising long before this pandemic, but the inevitability of it has been secured for the future. The limits to a remote classroom are dictated by the stakeholder’s access to technology, the teacher’s quality of virtual content, and the routines and practices of distance learning to fuel engagement by everyone in the classroom.

2. Teaching and learning in crisis. The context which surrounds our remote learning environments further compounds any technological shortcomings that might already exist. In fact, psychological or motivational blockers are perhaps a bigger hurdle than anything caused by technology itself. How can teachers make sure their students are actually motivated to learn while at home with a variety of distracting obstacles around them? How do teachers address the reality that students are perhaps feeling as stir crazy and isolated as anyone else and the last thing on their minds is an exit ticket grade? These are circumstances that go beyond the confines of homeschool techniques or distance learning approaches. These times call for a truly holistic approach to education, one that covers curricular content but also taps into a child’s social-emotional development.

Focus areas for a remote classroom during societal crisis:

1. Social emotional learning: This time is an opportunity to better implement social-emotional learning into the daily remote curriculum. The same-old techniques done in a classroom cannot be replicated in a remote learning environment. It’s a perfect time to double-down on social-emotional learning to not only respond accordingly in this time of crisis, but also keep students engaged, motivated, and bought-in to the virtual education product that they must adapt to during this time.

2. 1:1 check-ins and reminders: Alongside SEL practices, relationship development, small group coaching, and one-on-one mentorship are related areas that teachers and their paraeducators can take on more of during times of social distancing. The simple act of getting students to respond to email in a timely manner or dial into the classroom on time are skills that can be modeled and taught during this period of time to develop students’ professionalism and provide a more structured routine. There are a host of other strategies to use that would not typically be implemented in the past. Texting homework reminders to students, checking in on their home life via text, or setting up a breakout room for a particular group of learners to go over concepts are just a few examples of how to make distance learning more personal.

3. Meet students where they are: In all of this change and transition, it is also important to recognize what is realistic and practical to expect of students and teachers in a crisis. It should no longer be expected that students are “in school” for an average of eight hours a day in a virtual setting. The circumstances simply do not provide for that sort of structure or expectations. When students are at home and can do anything they would want to do, what should keep them in front of a laptop with their school teacher?

Additionally, students’ schedules and behaviors will vary significantly as it relates to their particular living situations (siblings that require caretaking, technological limitations, lack of parental attention, other home-related obligations or circumstances, or just general difficulties coping with the dramatic life changes). Therefore, educators must make sure to personalize their approach as much as possible. The expectations of assignments and class time should be clear, but concessions can/should be made based on outside factors.

What We Can Aspire To

The expectations may have shifted, but what should our north star be for this period of time? Decisions have yet to be made on a state-level regarding the school year, summer school efforts, or what happens next year, but the realistic outcome is that virtual schooling will be a norm for at least the coming year ahead. In the short-term, there are several things under a teacher’s control that will address both the crisis at hand, the remote reality of schooling, and the focus areas previously mentioned:

1. Creating a safer, more personal virtual paradigm. An era that calls for unprecedented restrictions on physical proximity can, counterintuitively, open more avenues for a safer social and emotional development. Educators and learning institutions should use this new circumstance to build practices for more social-emotional practices that can be scaled and, in turn, develop more personal relationships with their students.

2. Establishing effective online communication norms. Another effort to take on during distance learning is to establish consistent and effective behavior norms for students. Developing the habits of mind to dial-in on time, responding professionally to emails/texts, and being present via videoconference are all still in the realm of teaching and learning during this time. In fact, these skills will perhaps be more important for the next generation than we may know.

The current circumstance will provide the education sector a wealth of practical knowledge on what factors to consider in a virtual environment. If the last few weeks have been any indication, our educators are resilient and innovative. The pursuit of that future starts with establishing safe and effective virtual environments centered around our students.